The Bull Moose and the Buddhist

I’ve been watching The Roosevelts An Intimate History on PBS this week. I have DVR’d each night’s installment but am a couple of nights behind, so what I have seen so far has dealt mostly with Theodore Roosevelt, an energetic and immensely vital man, with a few disturbing sides to his very large personality.  Not to put too fine a point on it but he was a war monger, and he sometimes lived recklessly out of a need to constantly prove himself.

TR in 1917
TR in 1917

When America entered WWI in 1917, a 58 year-old, half-blind Roosevelt went to then-President Woodrow Wilson and offered to not only raise a division of volunteers but to also lead them into battle.  It was absurd and Wilson declined the offer.  Speaking of TR after their meeting, Wilson said “He is a great big boy. There is a sweetness about him. You can’t resist the man.” One of Teddy’s nicknames was “Bull Moose” because he was the founder of the Bull Moose Progressive Party. It was an apt description of the man.

I am always interested to see if figures like that have any connections with Buddhism. I did some research on my own and found out that Teddy had a Buddhist bud! In fact, they were close friends. The documentary mentions that at one point TR became interested in jujitsu. The person who introduced him to that martial art was a man named William Sturgis Bigelow, a long time friend who often entertained TR in his Boston home. Bigelow was a doctor, graduated from Harvard Medical School, who lived in Japan for seven years to study Buddhism, and became a collector of Buddhist and Oriental art.

In 1908, Bigelow gave a lecture at Harvard titled “Buddhism and Immortality” that was later published. It is a lengthy piece full of the rather stilted language of the time. Buddhist thinking from Westerners during this period is always a mixed bag. Sometimes they get it and sometimes they don’t. In this short paragraph from the lecture, Bigelow closes in on the former:

William Sturgis Bigelow in Japan, c.1884.
William Sturgis Bigelow in Japan, c.1884.

Consciousness is continuous. Therefore, there is but one ultimate consciousness. All beings are therefore one; and when one man strikes another, he strikes all men, including himself. Just when and where and how in terms of space and time he feels his own blow depends on circumstances, but sooner or later he will. A good deed comes back to the doer in the same way.”

You can read the entire lecture at Archive.org and learn more about TR’s BBF (Best Buddhist Friend) at the Bigelow Society

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